Photo by Julian Myles on Unsplash

Back in 2010, I was only 13 when I saw the “Karate Kid” remake in theaters. For the first time, I felt as though I was in the presence of someone ethereal. Transcendent, if you will. That divine person on the big screen was 12-year-old Jaden Smith. It was his first starring role, but he carried the movie on his back — crying, fighting and everything in between. His powerful, emotional performance in “Karate Kid” indicated that he was more than just another child star with famous parents (Will and Jada Pinkett Smith). 

As I left the movie theater — in awe of Smith’s confidence and strength — his song with Justin Bieber, “Never Say Never,” played over the credits. In this banger, Smith raps: 

“Like David and Goliath / I conquered the giant / so now I got the world in my hand / I was born from two stars / so the moon’s where I land (I’m gone).” 

Indeed, the world’s now in his hands, or at least, it should be. It’s been over a decade since Smith first proved to the world his talent as an actor and musician. Over the years, he’s continued to make movies and music. In 2020, he released his third studio album, “CTV3: Cool Tape Volume 3,” which is stacked with 17 vibey quarantine love and heartbreak songs. Smith’s artistic voice has persisted and evolved over time into an angelic one, but his ongoing attempts to help heal the world are even more admirable. Now, as a 22-year-old social justice and climate activist, he passionately uses his platform to evoke positive change. 

Notably, Smith is taking action against the water crisis. Water.org states that “785 million people lack access to safe water.” Smith started brainstorming ideas for fighting this issue when he was 10 years old after seeing plastic floating in the ocean. In 2015, he co-founded JUST Water, a sustainably sourced and packaged spring water company. Still going strong, the brand is now worth $100 million and, according to its website, “has kept nearly 4.4 million pounds of carbon from being released into the environment.” Smith has reportedly donated over thousands of JUST Water cartons to public schools and the homeless community throughout Los Angeles. 

In addition, Smith co-founded 501CTHREE, a non-profit that prioritizes sustainable solutions while providing clean water to low-income communities. The organization’s website explains that residents of poverty-stricken areas are typically forced to depend on “donations of bottled water for drinking, cooking and hygiene.” As a result, the burden of buying and giving out bottles oftentimes becomes too much, leaving people without access to clean water. 

In 2020, Smith explained to Interview Magazine that 501CTHREE won’t be delivering bottled water. Instead, they’re distributing “safe, limitless water” via Waterboxes, filtration systems that purify ten gallons of water per minute. So far, over 38,000 gallons of clean, safe water have been dispensed in Waterbox locations, including: Flint, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; and Skid Row, Los Angeles. This project has averted waste from over 306,000 water bottles. Overall, Smith’s organization is “dedicated to environmental justice around energy, food, water and shelter globally.” 

When it’s safe to do so, Smith told Variety that his “biggest dream” is to put Waterboxes in Uganda, “where people are dying from waterborne diseases or dehydration.” In order to achieve such dreams, he’s using social media to get others involved in the movement.

“What I want to do is inspire other young people and people of all ages to come and join me and to work with me to make this world better,” Smith said. 

Even his fashion brand deals are centered around sustainability. In discussing Smith’s collaboration with New Balance, GQ writer Zak Maoui argues that he’s “drafting the blueprint for how all Gen Z-ers should behave moving forward.” Maoui pointed out that while Smith uses social media to advocate for the Black Lives Matter Movement and for combating climate change, he’s actively taking the necessary steps to achieve results. With New Balance, he created the brand’s “most sustainable kicks yet,” made out of recyclable materials that would’ve otherwise ended up in a landfill. 

Moreover, in late April, Levi’s announced that Smith is the face of their “Buy Better, Wear Longer” spring campaign, as the company aims to be more planet-friendly in 2021. Smith is working with Levi’s to conserve water in their jean consumption, and to promote buying the brand’s denim secondhand. 

“The world we live in tells us to constantly buy. It puts us in this bad cycle,” Smith said an advertisement for Levi’s. “I’m glad that Levi’s is changing that message by making thrifting cool. Some of my favorite pairs are thrifted.” 

Although I’m personally not at Smith’s level of founding an eco-conscious brand or driving a Tesla to save the environment, his actions inspire me. In real life, he possesses the drive that he portrayed on-screen in the “Karate Kid” and is using it to heal our earth. In Smith’s 2017 hit, “Icon,” he raps, “I need you to listen to the vision.” Whenever I recycle, read an e-book or sip out of a reusable straw, I’m listening and adhering to that vision. His tenacious activism should be a motivation to us all to strive for a healthier planet, even if that means taking a reusable grocery bag to Trader Joe’s or bicycling instead of driving. Paying attention to Smith has taught me that every decision — no matter how big or small — affects the future of our world. 

Opinion Columnist

Elizabeth Groening is an opinion columnist and a journalism graduate student at the University of Oregon. She specializes in lifestyle, covering everything from fashion trends to K-pop. Check out more of her work at elizabethgroening.com.